Thanksgiving reminds me of Armageddon.
When, might you ask, have YOU experienced a: “dramatic and catastrophic conflict, typically seen as to destroy the world or the human race?"
A post-apocalyptic vibe permeates Los Angeles during holiday weekends. Families flee by freeway, and by Thanksgiving the streets are abandoned. Honking ceases. Chaos un-ensues. Throw in 95-degree heat in November and it feels a little like the end of the world.
To see the freeways barren-ish this weekend was unsettling, but it was nothing like Carmageddon.
Who remembers the weekend Angelenos were warned about for months? The 405 was SHUTTING DOWN for an unprecedented 53 hours to allow crews to demolish a bridge in preparation for the freeway’s planned expansion. Over the July 15th, 2011 weekend, a stretch of 10 miles between the city’s two busiest interchanges—the 10 freeway to the south and the 101 freeway to the north—would be inaccessible.
If you are not from Los Angeles, it is difficult to explain what the 405 means to a city defined by The Car. The 405 runs from Irvine in the south to San Fernando in the north—through Orange County to Long Beach and up to Los Angeles County. The 405 is what drives L.A. and is how it is driven. On the 405, Angelenos stay connected to each other inside a sprawling labyrinth of hills and canyons, ocean and cement. This city of The Car has even inspired a dialect of sorts: Freeway-speak.
“Take the 210 to the 2 to the 5 and get off at the 4th street exit.” (This is how Kevin gets to his studio, par exemple.)
The 405 is Los Angeles’ Life Force.
In 2011, I was the Golden State’s healthiest alcoholic/addict, hitting all 5 food groups as hard as I hit the bottle. On the conveyor belt, cheap $4.99 Russian vodka lay nestled amongst avocados (Omega 3!), tomatoes (Lycopene!) and broccoli (Super food!). I chose not to think about how the days of Grey Goose were long gone. That I was drinking our dollars away too quickly to keep up with my penchant for designer vodka. No, it just made good sense to save our pennies! As long as everything else I was putting into my newly transplanted body was organically A-OK, this Siberian liquid—with its origin in potatoes—could not possibly harm me.
But the night before Carmageddon, I drank more than I ever had, including substances never before guzzled by my unquenchable gullet and gut. When I awoke the next morning, I could not move.
My body oozed alcohol. It trickled down through the shafts of my hair to the tops of my toenails cooked soft from the toxic blood alcohol level on which I was barely breathing. If I had walked by a candle I would have burst into flames.
On my skin, I could feel the late afternoon light, warm and full. I tried to cover my face with my arm and got as far as my thigh. This later-day light guides regular people through their day as from the kindly beam of a flashlight. For me, it was a beacon reminding me that those who were in bed in the middle of the day were different from everyone else.
Depression like a virus mushroomed inside my chest. My body craving Life I could not muster for myself. Somehow, I got the TV on. Had I ever been this hungover? I was past hungover. I was hanging on.
A female news reporter appeared on the screen. Her slick fuchsia suit hugged her hips. She held the microphone in a territorial grip beneath her glossy mouth. She was ferocious. She was ALIVE.
“The mayor and the police are advising people to stay at home. But emergency operations centers have been opened across the city.”
She was standing in the middle of 405. No cars were driving in either direction. Long river-like cement roads flowed behind her, eerie stretches of abandoned asphalt burning in the summer sun.
I shivered. It was startling to observe the typically vital freeway shut down. The roads looked surreal without their regular tin can chaos, yet also insignificant. Stripped of purpose. Los Angeles was drained of all life without its main artery open and flowing.
Even in my unconscious state, it was obvious. This was me. I was the 405 unplugged.
I remember being unable to move as my soul screamed. The recent alcohol-splattered, pill-strewn road I had walked had wound through the small towns of Dabbling to Dependency through Desperation. It was the end of the road for me.
Pills and alcohol were my LifeForce. A glass of straight-up relief or a narcotic cloud of ignorance had worked for so long. Offering me distraction and peace. Freedom. At Carmageddon, they offered me nothing but death.
And that day, it’s the closest I came to welcoming that.
Into evening, waves of depression radiated outward from my soul as melted core, obliterating my spirit with each ripple. I clicked the remote and the barren stretches of freeway disappeared into a tiny pinprick of light.
On Thanksgiving, in addition to turkey and cranberry sauce, it’s a North American tradition of sorts to go around the table and articulate what we are thankful for. It’s lovely. It’s heartfelt. But gratitude can be easy. It can be a list of the external: My iPad, my Botox, or my million-dollar business. (None of which, BTW, I possess.) Or it can be hard.
Gratitude, for me, has been found through work, the willing excavation of my soul and restoration of the ruins I have found.
Gratitude came through loss. When I say, “I am grateful I am not homeless” it bounces off me, for I have never been homeless. But I have lost my health, and yes, very nearly my life.
You would think everything would be uphill from Carmageddon on, but poor health has a way of wearing you down to the very nub of yourself. Just once ‘round the table I wish I could quip, wryly, like a bit of an asshole, “Well, at least I have my health!” but today that is not my story.
My burning skin still cries out when I wear clothes, and now Houston, we have a new symptom: ear-ringing, or the frequently mispronounced tinnitus. Whether this will be a temporary blip on my medical chart, or a permanently torturous condition that I can barely write this piece through (never mind the rest of my life), remains to be seen.
My deepest gratitude? Turns out death ain't all that bad. For I had to die in order to learn how to live. Grrr. God, I hate it when all those clichés turn out to be true! My favorite? One day at a time. Sometimes an hour. Sometimes one second.
Every morning, my soul still screams. Sometimes softly, sometimes in a you-better-hit-your-knees-lady kinda tone. Because daily, I am faced with the same conflict, and it is as dramatic and catastrophic as it has ever been.
What Life Force will I plug into?
Pills and Alcohol or something altogether miraculous.
In some ways, I still feel trapped inside my body the way I was on that Carmageddon afternoon, unable to lift my arm to shield my face from the afternoon sun.
But today, no matter what, I choose to live in the light.